Friday, September 25, 2009

The Party Hat Version of Journalism

Doug Cumming making his presentation this a.m.^

When Doug Cumming mentioned that there were 300,000 magazines, I made a note to ask him about it, following his lecture. Later I said, "Does that mean just the Roanoke Valley or is it for a wider area?"

It was for the whole world and it was for last year, said the Washington & Lee Journalism assistant professor, following his talk to a room packed with students this morning. Doug, an old newspaper guy with a couple of nice lines in his resume for magazine experience (his dad--about whom he is finishing a book--was the southern bureau chief for Newsweek magazine as Doug was growing up), made a dazzling historical presentation that had me transfixed for nearly and hour. I almost didn't say anything. The hour of quiet would have been a record. But, alas ...

In any case, I had addressed a class of Doug's first thing this a.m. and we talked for an hour about niche publications and what's next for journalism (and, oh, hell no, I don't know). They were an attentive bunch, obviously interested in what would be next after college.

For me, though, the highlight was Doug's presentation. His newest book, The Southern Press (Northwestern University Press) is a riveting look at the history of journalism in our region and answers a lot of questions about why Southern writers are often so good. His presentation this morning, though considerably truncated, was no less fascinating, especially when he waved around a 1748 copy of "Gentleman's Magazine," a very early British publication that was about 15 years old at the time. It had followed on the heels of Daniel Defoe's 1704 "Review" as the first magazine in the world. (I was surprised, by the way, when Doug asked if any of the students knew Defoe and none did. They weren't familiar with Robinson Crusoe, either.)
In short order, Doug talked about the birth of magazines in America: Andrew Bradford's "American" in 1741 and Ben Franklin's "General" a bit later the same year. Neither lasted a year.

The history lesson went on and included Doug's definition of a magazine (I think he picked this up somewhere along the way in printed form): "Periodical targeting a general but uniquely defined group of readers, publishing non-fiction, features, news, advice, fiction, poetry, art and photography. Magazines express and sometimes shape pop culture through design and a relationship with readers."

And, given the relationship I have developed with Valley Business FRONT during the past year, his best observation of the presentation was one I could not have put better: Magazines are "the party hat version of journalism."

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